By Keith Schneider
In recognition of pervasive farm-related water contamination, federal regulators have ordered three Minnesota state agencies to address “imminent and substantial endangerment to the health” of thousands of residents who are being exposed to high levels of nitrate contamination in their drinking water.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered state officials to urgently address a nitrate-contaminated drinking water crisis threatening the karst region in southeastern Minnesota and provide safe, alternative drinking water for impacted residents.
The EPA directive, which was issued last week, comes in response to a petition filed last spring by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and ten other groups calling on the agency to investigate. The action also comes as federal and state authorities in Corn Belt states are expressing growing concerns about threats posed by farm-related water pollution.
“The feds are interested in human health,” said Jeff Broberg, director of the Minnesota Well Owners Organization, an advocacy group. “That’s been the missing link in considering the hazards of nitrate pollution.”
Nitrates form when nitrogen from commercial fertilizer and animal manure are exposed to oxygen. Nitrate exposure has been linked to a range of health problems, including heart and lung problems and certain cancers. Nitrates are known to be particularly dangerous for babies.
The EPA demands for action on nitrate pollution came in a letter to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Health, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. In its letter, the EPA said the state must stringently regulate manure management at large livestock operations, a primary source of the contamination. Crop and livestock production accounts for roughly 70 percent of the state’s nitrate pollution, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
“We know what causes this pollution. It’s time for Minnesota’s agricultural lobby and the Department of Agriculture to come to the table and agree to real solutions to eliminate this public health threat,” Leigh Currie, MCEA director of strategic litigation, said in a press release.